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Praise Entrepreneurs, Not Cubicle Capitalists

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Last week, I observed six senior Fortune 100 executives discussing a desperately-needed digital strategy. They each sported the obligatory hallmarks of business success: expensive Italian suits, carefully manicured hairstyles and company-issued smartphones resting on dark leather compendiums. You could almost smell the overhead. As the meeting progressed, it was clear that these Ivy-schooled individuals were slick, sharp, and well-structured. But when the time came to discuss promising start-ups in their industry, the surprising bitterness began:

"Why are we talking about Company X? I could probably buy them on my credit card."

"We are the kingmakers in this industry. Entrepreneurs should be tripping over themselves just to meet with us."

"I could have joined Company Y in the early days. But I decided to work for a real organization."

As the percentage of U.S. adults involved in startups hit a record 13 percent in 2012, the White House proclaimed that "entrepreneurs are the engine of our economy" [PDF]. But the 300-pound-Diet-Coke-drinking-pepperoni-pizza-eating-founder in the room is that, in the minds of most American adults, entrepreneurship remains the domain of misfits: an odd pursuit of unwashed nerds that were unwilling or unable to secure real jobs and build "respectable" careers. Said one executive I spoke with: "I struggle to find any value in today's start-ups, because I believe entrepreneurship is all about luck." Another simply proclaimed: "Some choose to make apps and toys. I opted to get a real job." There is evidence of similar pessimism overseas.

In a recent study [PDF], just 36 percent of Chinese students surveyed agreed that "entrepreneurs are popular amongst my friends and family members." Only half agreed with the statement that, "when looking for a life partner for my sibling, we would prefer an entrepreneur over a person who has a job."

Even those who actually choose the bumpy path of starting a company often do so out of desperation, not choice. Although start-up ecosystems are surging around the world, it's clear that our negative attitudes towards entrepreneurship require significant reform. Founders, as the Erasure song goes, "need a little more respect."

Instead of rallying behind innovative entrepreneurs, we shower disproportionate reward on the "cubicle capitalists": the salary-heavy, mission-lite brazen careerists who hide behind ever-inflated titles and ascend the corporate ladder with pure personal gain in mind. While writing Passion & Purpose, I met dozens of recent graduates who, rather than applying their newly-acquired knowledge to solve important problems, had prematurely opted to extract value for themselves. Said one young executive: "I had big ideas when I started, but now it's all about getting promoted to partner." Said another: "I know I'm just pushing paper. But I like getting paid six figures for working nine-to-five and ordering room service at fancy hotels." Certainly not everyone who works at a large company fits this description, but most of us know someone who does: the type that creates activity instead of change, engages in endless office politicking and gets more than their fair share of promotions, bonuses and cushy paychecks at a time when the situation calls for bold new ideas. Harvard Professor Deepak Malhotra recently summarized this unfortunate predicament: "If we take more money home than the value we create, we are unintentional thieves. It's really that simple."

Entrepreneurs, we need you.

The pursuit of entrepreneurship, either independently or within an existing company, is not for everyone. Founders face real challenges. Said one: "I can't get a mortgage -- the bank won't even look at me." Another lamented: "My wife divorced me because my business failed." Economists would argue that the high start-up failure rate (over 75 percent) combined with our loss-averse nature means your son or daughter probably should learn how to defend the status quo. But landing a secure, high-paying job is not an excuse to knock the "misfits": the courageous few entrepreneurs who choose to risk their own careers, reputations, and financial security to improve the world for us all.

The irony in the "entrepreneur versus large company" debate is that all of the latter exists because of the former. Those Prada-wearing executives are so precisely because one or more individuals once took a calculated risk with limited resources at their disposal, and built a company capable of providing secure employment to many. But this isn't about pitting those working on start-ups against the corporate types, nor is it about the merits of joining a fledgling organization versus a large company. Being an entrepreneur is a mindset that can be practiced in any situation and regardless of seniority or prior experience. Whatever your title, you are free to choose progress over process. If you manage others, you have the option to usher in real change by elevating those who display true innovation over those simply seeking a promotion.

For all the founders who were ever discarded by the establishment, know that your contribution is valued. My hope? That the tide turns and we begin respecting the very entrepreneurs on which the world is built.

This post was originally published on HBR.org.